Only an Unprofessional Can Play Hamlet
In “Hamlet” the theme of theatre is important. Nekrošius knows it perfectly and does not downgrade its meaning. […] This time he grants the actors, the characters of Shakespeare’s tragedy, the right to prove that “the world is a theatre”. If so, then being a director or an actor is merely another, perhaps more honest expression of a permanent state. And if so, then also an unprofessional can play Hamlet. Or, to be more exact, only an unprofessional can play Hamlet.
The place where the action is set is not identified. However, it does exist. It exists everywhere. It is the same world theatre. Any of its points. “Hamlet” takes place on an empty stage, to which real objects have been brought. Freely and bravely cutting the text of the play and interpreting the archetypal plot, Nekrošius remains completely faithful to Shakespeare. […] Nekrošius does not need a modern stage design. He needs props and air. Rain, drizzle, mist. He needs, in his own words, the change of physical states. Ice and fire. The set has been replaced by props, whose function becomes clear only when they are put to use. […] A saw, a press, a knife, splinters of glass breaking in mid-air, thick metal chains. Props physically dangerous to those who come close. Because it is Theatrum Mundi. An actor may not take the curtain call. The stage is not only a place of illusions. It is mortally dangerous to stay there. The limits between theatre and life, and even between the living and the dead have been crossed.
One of the most beautiful meanings of “Hamlet” is revealed at the moment when we see that the father not only brings his son a knife for revenge, but also prepares the stage and Hamlet himself for the monologue To be or not to be. Here the dead father initiates the crucial episode of the famous tragedy. And then it becomes clear: the father and the son are related with such a strong bond and closeness that they can hear and see each other. However, – and it is the striking surprise of Nekrošius’ interpretations, – they will lose this possibility when they are both dead.
The father comes from the cold and ice not to provoke his son into blind revenge (like Claudio will do with Laertes) – he prepares his son for performing his duty and telling the truth, he asks him to destroy the lies. Otherwise the time of his son Hamlet and then – that of his son’s son will be difficult and unfair. But somehow whenever the historic truth is being restored in some kingdom, it is young people who die first. Unprofessionals, who have exchanged a pocket knife for a knife of revenge frozen in an ice cube.
To say that Nekrošius produced a good performance or offered an original interpretation would mean not to say anything at all. To say that Mamontovas created one of the most spectacular roles of the recent period would also be banal. When Nekrošius was on the rise as a director in the Youth Theatre, the definition here and now acquired the status of an artistic criterion and aesthetic value in Lithuanian theatre research. The director was looking for a new here and now for a long time, even digressing to the applied decorativeness of the renewed “Verona”. It is a knockout to all of us that he has found it in his “Hamlet”.
Ramunė Marcinkevičiūtė, “Only an Unprofessional Can Play Hamlet”, Teatras No. 2, 1997
The Fourth Wave
I have never seen such a ruthless “Hamlet”. It is said that “Macbeth” is the most rapid, and “Hamlet” – the most languid play by Shakespeare. But this performance starts without any warm-up and does not let go till the very end, even though the famous words about silence have been said long ago. The first impression after the performance is an avalanche of images. The images astound, attack and shock us and provoke an incomprehensible anxiety. Metaphors? Hardly. More likely it is a physical reality turning into an image and an emotion. It transports the actors into a unique state of existence, which is also communicated to the spectator. […]
Consciously or intuitively, Nekrošius and the set designer Nadežda Gultiajeva melt together as if into a solid lump the four elements, four origins, which constituted the basis of existence in classical and mediaeval philosophy. In Shakespeare’s work these elements serve as philosophical and visual categories. In Nekrošius’ artistic thinking they are probably primarily visual. And this is not a mere a metaphor. These elements participate in everything what is taking place on the stage of the tragedy directed by Nekrošius. The earth is the stage floor, which attracts the characters like a powerful magnet, makes them run, twist and fight, till a grimly fluttering burial “shroud” appears in the final scene. Water turns into rain, drizzle, sleet and ice. Water existing in these endless shapes permeates the atmosphere, becomes an ever-present medium of action, from which neither a shirt nor a fur coat, neither footwear nor metal gadgets can protect. And finally fire: since […] the appearance of the Ghost it follows Hamlet like a reminder of his oath and duty, and like soot, coal and ashes, speaks about this and another world at the same time. Alongside appears the fifth element – iron, screeching and thundering. Metal spades are more ominous than weapons. […]
By choosing this particular actor, Nekrošius seeks to help a contemporary spectator to identify himself with Hamlet. […]. Nekrošius is interested in an individual’s confrontation with existence, which is solved through passionate acting rather than reflecting or philosophising. Thus in this performance the dilemma of the “strong” and “weak” Hamlet is not developed. Neither is the theme of hesitations and doubts. A very real duty – the undisputable oath given to his father – pushes Hamlet out of his childhood. With every new step his sensitivity to injustice increases. It is not a vision conceived by reason, but determination filling his entire physical and emotional being. […]
Hamlet’s solitude is traditionally emphasised, which is relieved only by his friendship with Horatio or […] his spiritual and playful link with the travelling actors. In Nekrošius’ performance I noticed also another layer of friendship: the solidarity of the young. Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Fortinbras having been discarded, a group of obviously close young people remained. Nekrošius gives more prominence to the problem of parents and children frequently found in Shakespeare’s tragedies and comedies. The young people themselves are often not aware of this closeness, but for us it leaves little doubt. […]
Very moving is the image of time destroying all illusions, an artist’s unconditional aim, to use Hamlet’s words to the travelling actors, “to hold a mirror up to nature”. Without any artificial actualisation, Nekrošius reveals to us an Elsinore containing a lot of splinters of different epochs and even more unchanging features of tragic existence.
One has to get accustomed to this vision. Not to reconcile oneself, but rather to learn to look straight to the essence of existence laid bare by art. It does not bring you light joy. But it brings you necessary wisdom.
Dovydas Judelevičius, “The Fourth Wave”, Teatras No. 2, 1997
Hamlet Is Young
Ramunė Marcinkevičiūtė: Let’s start with the most banal and difficult question – why “Hamlet”?
Eimuntas Nekrošius: I’ll be frank – to me it’s all the same which play to produce. It’s just that each time I’m overtaken by professional venture spirit.
R.M.: Will you succeed in conquering “Hamlet”?
E.N.: No! It’s impossible. The longer I rehearse, the more firmly I get convinced that only a very young and totally inexperienced director can make an excellent production of “Hamlet”. As well as play Hamlet.
R.M.: According to a long-established opinion, a role like Hamlet has to be earned; one has to wait for it, to achieve recognition and only then be crowned with Shakespeare. But in the play Hamlet is young – he is a student.
E.N.: Yes, and his age determines a lot. Could his mother’s infidelity have made such a devastating effect on a man who is no longer young? Hamlet lives the lives of others. He is still very close to his parents. And, let’s say, a man of forty who still doesn’t have his own life is already a certain anomaly. Hamlet is young, and in the play his age is one of the basic generators of the tragedy.
R.M.: Does it mean that you treat “Hamlet” also as a family chronicle? And where are the deep philosophical interpretations obligatory in this case?
E.N.: Don’t you think that it is much easier to put these philosophies on the theatre stage? One can create a lot of apparent depth. One can build an extremely huge structure without being responsible for its meanings and pretending that one has invented something special. Though… “Hamlet” is really a theoretical play. It doesn’t yield to be put on stage.
R.M.: How can it be! It has been on stage for several centuries. In the early 17th century British soldiers sailing to India used to play “Hamlet” out of boredom.
E.N.: It’s difficult to imagine this kind of situation. But maybe everything is very simple indeed. And we ourselves complicate the essence, bring confusion, because we no longer can recognise the simple truths. But… the classics naturally command respect – we place great meaning to each line, each comma. Yet I can still see a lot of things that are possible only theoretically. For example, God’s direct influence on the action.
R.M.: Though, as you say, the play cannot be produced, the premiere is drawing near. Now you can probably see if the choice of Andrius Mamontovas for the role of Hamlet has been justified?
E.N.: It’s difficult to say. Of course, he lacks the basic skills of acting. But alongside he doesn’t have all this load of stage clichés, which one necessarily collects after staying some time in the theatre.
R.M.: One can see at the rehearsals that Andrius Mamontovas as if doesn’t feel any limit between stage life and real life.
E.N.: Yes, he is extremely authentic. Even when he acts badly. It’s not appropriate to say this, but his intonations are fresh. To me the ears are everything in the theatre. You hear an actor saying the first word, and then you can look down and think to yourself how much the actors’ occupation is subjected to clichés. And Andrius Mamontovas is very new in our conservative theatrical environment.
R.M.: And yet – there are so many actors in Lithuania, and Nekrošius sees Hamlet almost in “a man in the crowd”.
E.N.: Let’s not place too much significance on the theatre. A diploma doesn’t decide everything in this occupation. More crucial are innate things, character features or the voice timbre. I’ll make many people angry by saying that the actor’s occupation is not that difficult. That is, it’s not difficult to study it. Let’s compare the studies at a theatre school and at a medical academy. On the other hand, with time it’s getting difficult to maintain a high professional level constantly. And besides, one can’t learn to play Hamlet. How does it sound, “I know how to play Hamlet”! One can’t learn to play Hamlet. Either a person is genetically susceptible and open to this role, or he isn’t.
R.M.: And why did you tell Mamontovas to read Stanislavsky?
E.N.: Stanislavsky’s book is a wonderful thing for the actors. Anyone can read it. Thieves, shop assistants, diplomats, politicians and other important persons. So that they learn how to impersonate others, how to lie while looking into another person’s eyes and not sweat. Or how to concentrate. The elements of the art of acting are present in all spheres of reality. Shakespeare is right, as always.
R.M.: Andrius Mamontovas has come to your performance having already created his image. Even the outer one. Are you going to change his punk hairstyle?
E.N.: How can I change a person’s individuality? Besides, this Mohawk, this ruffled hair… Maybe it’s ruffled against something? As a protest, rebellion. Finally, it’s just ordinary details. A hairstyle doesn’t influence acting.
R.M.: A question provoked by theatrical activity: having just produced the rock opera “Love and Death in Verona”, now you invited the leader of “Foje” for the role of Hamlet. One can see a new theme for theatre research – “Nekrošius and pop culture”.
E.N.: I don’t have a wily scheme. Pop is not a bad thing. Pop culture is more sincere than elite one. The haughty elite culture grows out of this despised pop. The sons go to live in the city and are ashamed of their farmer father. When I was producing “Verona”, I put into it the same amount of love, energy and contrivance as into any other production. I worked with pop people, and what happened? Did my skin get thicker, or did my look lose its keenness? If I’m told, “Your performance is for a mass audience”, I accept is as a compliment. They feed us. Those who’re sitting and watching. Who are we without them? Now the theatre has intruded on professorship. Experiments, laboratories, projects. Feelings in a test tube. Let’s take textbooks on trigonometry and give them out to the audience. It’ll be fairer. It’s still my conviction that in art one has to be biologically clean. There were so many times that I would drop a scene or a performance that I had started to rehearse, because something was not right. You have to listen to your heartbeat. It tells you everything, not your head. If your heart gets arrhythmic, it warns you – something is wrong. And it’s not a metaphor, it’s physiology. The heart is an organ, which is the first to react to fear: your brain is still asleep, but the heart already starts throbbing at a crazy speed.
R.M.: Perhaps the contemporary theatre is more refined?
E.N.: More refined? It’s more closed. Like a sect. I prefer a crude theatre, even a quack one. We have a lot of this primitiveness in us. We have a different biography. We’re not French or English. We’ve just risen from a potato field. One can’t reject one’s nature. We don’t need copies. Good things always lie close at hand. Bad ones lie in the swamps, in the forests, above the clouds. And good ones are right here. But it is not always that we can see or hear them. I can feel that my performances don’t attract an ordinary spectator. Is it possible that I started to contradict myself? Closeness in the theatre emerges from an artist’s egoism. The egoism of self-expression. Now everybody has got into creating installations like mad. It sounds nicely. What does one need to create such avant-garde? Only confidence and impertinence. Andrius Mamontovas has been on the stage for more than ten years. A whole generation has grown together with him. The work of the non-elite Andrius is more meaningful than making these installations, which are understood only by a chosen few. I envy him popularity. I went to listen to his concert in the Sports Palace and was panic-stricken when I saw a crowd of several thousand people. I wanted to run away as far as I could, I was wondering if I would stay alive. And what did Andrius do? He had this crowd under control. He appeared on the stage, started to sing, and the wild mass of dangerously excited young people suddenly became as meek as lambs, humble and subject to one man’s voice. I even felt sorry that I was too old and couldn’t sway together rhythmically with the youth. Let some professional actor appear in front of such an audience and try to conquer it. Then we can talk about the price of Andrius’ popularity. I liked his songs – they’re nostalgic. He buys you with his melancholy. Besides, a crowd is not a non-positive sign in the history of theatre. The theatre was formed as an art of big audiences.
R.M.: In “Hamlet” the theme of theatre can also be found. Are the words that Hamlet says to the actors still urgent 400 years later?
E.N.: Yes and no. A lot of things have changed in the course of centuries. While rehearsing “Hamlet”, I wanted to return to the tradition of the early, naïve theatre, to the poetics of crude theatre. In Shakespeare’s plays actors perform the function of denouncement. One can see that Hamlet trusts them, and talks nicely and positively of the actors. And he himself likes to act. But it is difficult to put it on stage. I always regarded the situation “theatre in the theatre” as banal. It’s the same as if in mathematics we would square a square. We are already on stage, in a theatre, and we still have to show that we’re making a parallel theatre. To give additional meaning to objective artificiality. So far in our performance there is a small platform. Most probably it will stay unfunctional. Shakespeare knew the theatre mechanism to the tiniest detail, he knew what is needed to keep the stage action going. Sometimes I sinfully think that “Hamlet” contains some scenes that were necessary to fill in some gaps – Shakespeare introduces a new theme, a new character, and when he wants to end that scene, he simply kills that character. I agree with the statement that in the Elizabethan theatre an actor used to play several minor roles in the same performance, and the appearances of the characters used to depend on the number of available actors. It is a crude, pure and authentic theatre practice.
R.M.: Why can a woman play Hamlet?
E.N.: Hamlet doesn’t have a gender. Shakespeare wrote a play of sensations. A girl can also feel that what Hamlet feels. Cold is cold, pain is pain, urge for revenge is an urge for revenge. Gender doesn’t have anything to do with it. It is one of the reasons of the universality of “Hamlet”. This play is as if the mechanism of a compass: the hands toss to all sides when you move it, but never lose direction.
R.M.: Did you see “Hamlet” in Taganka theatre when you studied in Moscow?
E.N.: No. But I read a lot about this performance. I imagine that it must have been an aggressive, violent Hamlet who was talking through clenched teeth. As if making the final effort. Like Vysotski’s songs.
R.M.: In the 2nd half of the 20th century Eastern European directors interpreted “Hamlet” as a political play: it was clear to everyone why Denmark was a prison and where this Denmark was. Is Denmark in your performance also a political totalitarian state?
E.N.: No. To be more exact, I didn’t place a special emphasis on this theme. I don’t want to produce a political drama. The reality of the present time will appear in the performance in one or another way, but I don’t seek direct political allusions. Perhaps sometimes it is worthwhile ignoring the political issues of the day and ceasing to see a KGB agent in Shakespeare’s character who is spying.
R.M.: Then what is your Denmark going to be like?
E.N.: Of mist. And of ice. Mist turns into a water drop. A water drop turns into ice. What is the opposite of ice? Heat, fire. It melts ice. Fire turns into coal. Elementary physical states. Laws. Axioms of nature. I like these states. Pure original elements. Ice is ice. It is made of water. And it’s not a metaphor. It’s something true, indisputable. And in a person’s life the change of these states is repeated – childhood, adolescence, maturity, old age. Like nature, life consists of different stretches. Cyclicity. The changeability and transition of matter lies in these states of nature. Spring will come and ice will turn into water. Water will give birth to another life. It goes on always. In the scene of Hamlet’s oath ice should turn into fire – the backrest of a rocking chair will turn into flames. Like a lion’s mane.
R.M.: Where does the Ghost come from – Paradise or Hell?
E.N.: From Paradise. And he brings revenge. And revenge is from Devil. In the play the ghost is the generator of the idea of revenge. Before his appearance life seems to run its normal course. Hamlet loves, studies. And here comes his dead father. It’s not a dream. It’s an apocalyptical meeting. His dead father has come. It can drive one crazy. Hamlet swears to revenge, and the world starts to flame. The soul is set on fire. Hamlet sacrifices his love. That’s where the tragedy is – he rejects love for the sake of revenge. He loved Ophelia, but he sends her to a convent, as love starts interfering with his search for truth. Do you know what is Shakespeare’s trickiest riddle for me? The father turns his son, an orphan, into a sick person. He traumatises him. He sends his child to death. What kind of father would want this? Father incites his son to commit a crime. It is the most difficult question for me. And another one. How can a dead person appear? Hamlet must be in a particular mental state to be able to see the Ghost.
R.M.: Was it his father’s ghost?
E.N.: If only I knew it… Parents don’t come from another world in such a shape. They come through the colour of your eyes and hair. Through your profile.
R.M.: It is said that “Hamlet” is a play, in which each epoch is looking for answers into its specific questions. Revenge instead of love – is it a sign of your time?
E.N.: I don’t know. I’m not so good at these signs. I always remember Confucius and his truth about the harmony of crookedness and straightness. Crookedness doesn’t undo straightness, and vice versa. It’s a unity of two things. Crookedness has its own straightness, and straightness has its own crookedness. When you put them together, you have harmony. In life, a straight person is not interesting to anyone. He lacks something. Probably crookedness. The same thing is in the performance. It is only a whole of separate – crooked and straight – scenes that has a meaning. If this connection appears, “Hamlet” will succeed. It will return to the present time.
R.M.: The monologue “To be or not to be” has already become a mythology and exists independently alongside he play…
E.N.: …let’s keep away from mythologies. Shakespeare himself doesn’t mythologize anything. Struggle for power is struggle for power. Revenge is revenge. Each of us is solving the question “to be or not to be”. But each has a different answer. It’s not only a question of metaphysical existence – it can torture us in our ordinary life as well. Each of us encounters difficult moments, and then we start looking for an answer and try to clutch at a straw.
R.M.: Do you make any cuts in the play?
E.N.: Yes, a lot of them. I only leave the basic scenes. If I didn’t do that, the performance would last so long that the audience would walk away.
R.M.: And in the final scene a young and strong Fortinbras will come and say: Take up the bodies, now I’ll be your king?
E.N.: In the final scene… I only know that a field of death has to appear on stage… Last winter, when there was much snow, roes were starving. They were trying to break through the crust of hard snow looking for food. Their legs cut, their skin scratched and bleeding. And they found a cemetery. In village cemeteries, which are not fenced off, the roes used to graze the flowers that were growing there. All cemeteries were full of their footprints. Roes used to come to the dead like to a spring. To eat some grass. To quench their hunger at least for an hour. So… Someone died and saved a roe.
R.M.: How many “Hamlets” did you produce while rehearsing this one?
E.N.: I don’t know. You keep straining and torturing yourself. And all that – for the sake of simplicity.
Ramunė Marcinkevičiūtė’s interview with the director Eimuntas Nekrošius, “Hamlet Is Young”, March 20, 1997 (from the leaflet “Hamlet” published by LIFE festival).